Climate change puts our military bases at risk

Climate change puts our military bases at risk
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Across the globe, our military installations are facing increasing risks from climate change.

The recently issued National Climate Assessment highlights the damage that climate change is already causing to military infrastructure from extreme weather and climate-related events and acknowledges that the military is working to incorporate climate risks into long-range planning. 

In a few weeks, the Department of Defense (DoD) has its own report due to Congress in which each military service will identify its 10 most vulnerable military installations.

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This report will wrestle with direct infrastructure impacts such as flooding and sea-level rise, impacts on readiness such as limitations on certain training operations on high heat days or during droughts, and even the vulnerabilities of surrounding communities upon which the installation depends. 

All of these impacts will be viewed through a filter of the importance of the missions at the base — with risks to critical missions being ranked highest. 

The National Climate Assessment highlights the impacts to Norfolk Naval Station, which is often invoked in connection with climate change because of the recurring flooding it already experiences. Multiple times a year, the base is inaccessible due to flooding on access roads. 

Piers are being rebuilt higher to protect equipment under the pier from corrosion, but this is likely only a temporary fix. The report notes that most of the area around the base sits less than 10 feet above sea level, while sea level rise by 2100 is expected to be anywhere from 2.5 to 11.5 feet.

The Hampton Roads region that is home to Norfolk is also home to more than a dozen other bases facing similar challenges. 

The most significant impacts on bases to date have been as a result of extreme weather, with the devastation that Hurricane Michael wreaked on Tyndall Air Force Base being the most recent example. 

While we can’t attribute any specific storm or its impacts to climate change, it is making storms stronger and wetter, and unless DoD increases the resilience of its bases, damage will increase. 

At Tyndall, almost every building was damaged, and many F-22s, unable to fly because they were in maintenance, were left in hangars and damaged as well. While Congress hasn’t addressed the costs of recovery from this year’s hurricane season, DoD pinned the cost of recovery from last year’s hurricanes at more than $1 billion dollars. 

Climate impacts are manifesting themselves across the DoD enterprise. In early November, Naval Air Station Point Mugu in southern California was evacuated as wildfires approached it. In the Pacific Ocean, multiple typhoons struck Guam and Tinian this year, impacting military installations on those islands.  

In addition, a DoD report released earlier this year indicated the radar site on Kwajalein Atoll would not be able to support human habitation by as early as 2030 as salt water intrusion makes the water there undrinkable. 

Congress has directed DoD to sift through these threats and report the top 10 installations that are most vulnerable to climate change. Once identified, DoD needs to get to work developing plans at these locations to reduce their risks. 

Do they need new infrastructure to protect from threats? Do they need desalination plants to ensure access to potable water? Do they need to develop energy resilience upgrades to blunt the impacts of anticipated power outages? Do Air Force bases in hurricane regions need stronger hangers so they can ride out the more intense storms that may come? 

Even if an installation is able to improve its own resilience, it still must consider the vulnerabilities of communities that surround it. Over time, defense communities have become indispensable to the installations they surround, providing:

  • electricity,
  • water,
  • communications,
  • transportation infrastructure,
  • housing for the majority of military personnel, 
  • a civilian workforce,
  • education services for military children,
  • specialized medical services and
  • emergency response services. 

In addition, key logistics requirements would eventually be a problem, as it may be difficult to provide essential supplies like food or fuel to the installation. 

Most bases would not be able to function for long if these services failed, making it a matter of national security to improve not only the resilience of military installations but also the defense communities that support them. 

When DoD reports its most vulnerable bases, it will need to develop comprehensive resilience plans to counter the specific climate vulnerabilities at each location and to preserve mission capability. They should also become the priority for resilience investments both on base and in the surrounding communities.

Ultimately, armed with the ability to foresee climate impacts that have and will threaten military installations, Congress and DoD have a responsibility to prepare for those impacts. 

They have a responsibility to support our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and their families in the face of these changes; they have a responsibility to ensure critical assets and infrastructure are built to withstand foreseeable hazards; and they have a responsibility to ensure that our service members are given the tools they need to perform their missions, in spite of the impacts of climate change.

John Conger is director of the Center for Climate and Security, and previously served in the Pentagon as deputy comptroller and assistant secretary of Defense for energy, installations and environment.